Hydro Review: Executive Interview with Kelly Speakes-Backman, DOE

Kelly Speakes-Backman

The Department of Energy has a long history of helping to address energy challenges in the U.S. In this executive interview, the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s Kelly Speakes-Backman discusses the office’s work to further support conventional hydropower and pumped storage.

Kelly Speakes-Backman is acting assistant secretary and principal deputy assistant secretary for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

She was appointed to this position by U.S. President Joseph Biden Jr. in January 2021. In her role, Speakes-Backman leads and directs EERE, focused on creating and sustaining American leadership in the transition to a global clean energy economy.  She oversees the planning and execution of the organization’s $2.8 billion portfolio of research, development, demonstration and deployment activities in energy efficiency, renewable energy and sustainable transportation.

Speakes-Backman most recently served as the first chief executive officer of the Energy Storage Association, the national trade organization for the energy storage industry. She has spent more than 20 years working in energy and environmental issues in the public, non-governmental organization and private sectors.

In this exclusive interview, Speakes-Backman shares the efforts of her office to advance and support renewable energy, including conventional hydropower and pumped storage. She also is scheduled to speak during the opening keynote session at HYDROVISION International 2021.

Q: Please give our readers an overview of DOE’s EERE.

Speakes-Backman: DOE’s EERE is comprised of three pillars: Energy Efficiency, Renewable Energy and Sustainable Transportation. We have 11 technologies offices that fall under those three pillars.

At EERE, our mission is to accelerate the research, development, demonstration and deployment of technologies and solutions to equitably transition America to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions economy-wide by no later than 2050, creating good paying jobs and ensuring the clean energy economy benefits all Americans – especially workers and communities impacted by the energy transition and those historically underserved by the energy system and overburdened by pollution. 

We provide funding, technical assistance, workforce development and training to support our mission to equitably transition to a clean energy economy. EERE works closely with our federal and non-federal partners – including the national laboratories; state, local and tribal governments; universities and colleges; non-profits; utilities and industry – to advance clean energy solutions.

Q: You’re fairly new at DOE, having been appointed to this position in January 2021. What is your future vision for EERE?

Speakes-Backman: We’re really at the tip of the spear for addressing climate change. When you think of the electricity sector, the transportation sector, manufacturing, and the built environment, these are all the areas that are contributing to manmade climate change. Our challenge is not only to make sure that the most promising technologies are developed through our research and development but also to validate and demonstrate them to bring them to market. And with the urgency of this crisis, we need to support and facilitate rapid deployment of these clean energy solutions. We at EERE are central to what President Biden has laid out in terms of achieving a clean energy grid by 2035 and a clean energy economy by 2050.

Q: How does hydroelectric power fit into DOE’s overall focus and work?

Speakes-Backman: There is no doubt that we are in the midst of a climate emergency. President Biden recognizes this and has set the necessary goals to build a 100% clean energy power sector by 2035 and reach net-zero emissions no later than 2050. Hydropower is used extensively for power system flexibility and resilience. In nearly every balancing area assessed, hydropower was more extensively utilized for hourly ramping flexibility than any other resource.1 Between this and the fact that pumped storage hydropower (PSH) represents 93% of U.S. grid storage today,1 it is clear that hydropower and PSH will be critical contributors to U.S. grid decarbonization. Strengthening these capabilities is the primary goal of our HydroWIRES Initiative in the Water Power Technologies Office (WPTO). We focus on enabling hydropower to be more flexible to better serve the grid and on overcoming market and deployment barriers to get new PSH built.

DOE Market report

DOE is also prepared to take on some of the job creation needed in this U.S. You may have heard the Secretary of Energy, Jennifer Granholm, say she is “obsessed” with creating jobs. This is another place that water power provides a strong pathway to the future. Hydropower employs more than 66,000 people across the U.S. – many in well-paid union jobs – but the workforce is aging, and with that comes a need for a new generation of water power workers and innovators.2 DOE’s Hydropower Vision report found that with new technology innovation and the correct training, hydropower could not only replace its aging workforce but grow further.3 Exploring various scenarios for the future of the U.S. hydropower industry, the most aggressive scenario added 150,000 jobs by 2050.2 This potential doesn’t even take into account that marine energy, a nascent technology field, can provide new resources to our grid and other diverse sectors of the Blue Economy, helping to create more jobs along coasts and in riverine and port communities across the U.S.

Q: How do you see hydro’s role changing as the resource mix changes in the U.S., with more installation of wind and solar generation?

Speakes-Backman: Hydropower provides about 7% of U.S. electricity generation each year,1 and it is an excellent source of support for more variable renewables. As I mentioned, hydropower is used extensively for its flexibility – this allows it to ramp up or down when paired with other, more variable, renewables like solar and wind. This ramping ability is especially prized when it comes to “black start” (starting generator units from a completely unenergized state without requiring grid-fed power) capabilities. PSH provides approximately 40% of black start resources in the U.S.1

Due to hydropower’s ability to support the integration of other renewables, we have seen shifts in how PSH is used. Prior to its integration with such systems, PSH plants would typically pump water from lower elevation back to a higher reservoir at night, when energy prices were low, and would generate power during the day, when energy needs were highest. However, when combined with other renewables, the energy needs switch. For example, at the Helms PSH plant owned by Pacific Gas & Electric Co., the pumping now occurs more and more frequently during the day and generation occurs at night.4

DOE value study

In addition to the ways in which hydropower can serve as a support to solar and wind energies, we’re investigating how hydropower’s role can expand and shift in the U.S. Of particular interest is how hydropower can be incorporated into existing water systems like the irrigation canals that stretch across the U.S. There is potential for this sort of integration to support the resilience of farms by providing farmers a reliable form of energy onsite while also potentially enabling an easier transition to electric farming equipment, thus decreasing or totally eliminating the need for diesel to power these technologies.

Q: A few months ago, DOE’s WPTO announced its Groundbreaking Hydro Prize winners. Can you tell us a bit about this program and its support of hydropower?

Speakes-Backman: The Groundbreaking Hydro Prize was created to address a particular difficulty faced by developers when siting, designing and constructing new hydropower. Because of the sheer size of most hydropower facilities, their geotechnical foundations provide structural support and must be developed to ensure stability, safety and performance for decades. Ensuring that these foundations are well-designed and constructed can lead to project delays and cost overages that threaten the final outcome and the timeline to begin electricity production.

By challenging competitors to evaluate these problems of site assessment, foundation design and construction, we hoped to:

  • Reduce construction costs
  • Shorten overall installation times
  • Minimize ground excavation
  • Avoid disturbances in river connectivity during installation, operation and maintenance (e.g. not use cofferdams when possible)
  • Leverage advanced materials and techniques
  • Prevent foundation treatment failures.

The Groundbreaking Hydro Prize resulted in two separate awards: the Groundbreaking Prize and the Innovator Prize. The Groundbreaking Prize went to the team of GZA GeoEnvironmental Inc. and Littoral Power Systems for their Terra-Modular Project. In this project, they prefabricated a modular hydropower foundation for a wide range of soils and substructures. The Innovator Prize went to Team Chemventive for the WaterJet Drill with a Deep Array of Anchor Cables. This team developed the concept of a deep array of high-tension cables drilled through solid rock, using a water-jet drilling robot, to secure a steel dam in tension.

Q: What other major initiatives are under way at DOE to support and advance hydro generation in the U.S.?

Speakes-Backman: At DOE, our continued push for advanced hydropower generation in the U.S. has led us beyond the extent of our own agency. In 2020, EERE signed a memorandum of understanding with the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation and the Department of the Army through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. These groups worked together to craft an Action Plan that provides a framework for collaboration that will address emerging hydropower issues and enhance technology research, development and demonstration in five topic areas:5

  • Asset management
  • Value of hydropower
  • Workforce
  • Water supply reliability
  • Environmental outcomes.

We continue to support developers on the ground with technical assistance and financial support. In July, WPTO announced three selectees for a Notice of Opportunity for Technical Assistance (NOTA) for Improving Hydropower’s Value Through Informed Decision Making. The awardees were GreatRiver Hydro, for its work in inflow forecasting on New England’s Great River; Idaho Power Company, for the Idaho Power hydrogen production integration project; and Energy Exemplar, for its work to enhance the representation of conventional hydropower data in production cost models. In addition, the HydroWIRES Initiative announced a notice of intent to release a funding opportunity that will seek next-generation technologies from manufacturers, equipment vendors and research organizations to improve the operational flexibility of the U.S. hydropower fleet.

Finally, earlier this year, as part of our HydroWIRES Initiative, we released the PSH Valuation Guidebook. The objective of this project was to develop a detailed step-by-step valuation guidance that PSH developers, plant owners or operators, and other stakeholders can use to assess the value of existing or potential new PSH plants and their services. Specifically, we wanted to develop valuation guidance to support consistency across PSH project comparisons or project designs, test the guidance by applying it to two selected PSH projects, and disseminate the PSH valuation guidance to the hydropower industry and beyond.

Q: You came to DOE from the U.S. Energy Storage Association. What is your outlook on pumped storage hydropower?

Speakes-Backman: As the co-chair of the International Forum on Pumped Storage Hydropower, I can confidently say: PSH is an important part of both the grid and our clean energy future. As we shift how we power our countries and economies, the need to scale up and recognize the value of PSH has never been greater. PSH is an energy storage resource that provides both great flexibility and large amounts of large-duration storage. The numbers in the U.S. show a long history of hydropower on our grid. PSH accounts for about 550 gigawatt-hours and 22 gigawatts of grid-scale energy storage in the U.S.1 Currently, 43 operating PSH plants provide 93% of grid-scale energy storage by capacity in the U.S.1 PSH capacity in the past decade grew by nearly as much as all other energy storage types combined, and we can only hope that it keeps on growing.1 We are working on tools to support this growth, from a PSH resource assessment to a PSH valuation tool that complements our PSH valuation guidebook.

Q: You are speaking during the keynote session upcoming at HYDROVISION International. Can you give us a sneak peek into a couple of the hot topics for EERE that you plan to cover?

Speakes-Backman: I’m really looking forward to this opportunity during the keynote session at HYDROVISION International to speak about hydropower’s potential to contribute to our goals on decarbonization, infrastructure and job creation. We know that hydropower has a great value to the grid, whether in its traditional, flexible form or in the energy storage capabilities of PSH. We need long-duration energy storage from resources like PSH in order to see a future fully reliant on renewable energy sources, and I can’t wait to talk about how DOE, through its HydroWIRES initiative and more, is working to make this vision of the future a reality.


1“U.S. Hydropower Market Report,” U.S. Department of Energy, 2021. https://www.energy.gov/sites/default/files/2021/01/f82/us-hydropower-market-report-full-2021.pdf

2“Workforce Development for U.S. Hydropower: Key Trends and Findings,” National Renewable Energy Laboratory, 2019. https://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy19osti/74313.pdf

3“Hydropower Vision,” U.S. Department of Energy, 2018. https://www.energy.gov/sites/prod/files/2018/02/f49/Hydropower-Vision-021518.pdf

4“Hydropower Value Study: Current Status and Future Opportunities,” Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, 2021. https://www.energy.gov/sites/prod/files/2021/01/f82/hydropower-value-study-v2.pdf

5“Memorandum of Understanding for Federal Hydropower,” Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 2021. https://www.energy.gov/sites/default/files/2021-06/mou-action-plan-2020.pdf

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Elizabeth Ingram is content director for the Hydro Review website and HYDROVISION International. She has more than 17 years of experience with the hydroelectric power industry. Follow her on Twitter @ElizabethIngra4 .

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